Archive for the ‘ritual calendar’ Tag

Seven Seeds of an Ancestor Practice   2 comments

[Updated 23 May 2020]

With even a little searching, you can of course find books and other resources for various ancestor practices.

Chances are good you’ve already begun one. Like so many things, the seeds — and often, the seedlings — already have taken root in your life.

With a family photo, an heirloom, a couple of stories, human memory, and experience of being alive, you’ve placed your hands on your own thread in the Weave, on a branch of the Great Tree, that surpasses any book.

Say you have an interest in genealogy. Or a relative frequently sends out clippings, photos, tidbits of biography about the family tree.

Maybe you’ve inherited old photos and letters, and they’ve sat on a shelf or at the back of a closet in a box or boxes because it’s hard to know what to do with the stuff. You can’t bring yourself to throw it out, but right now it’s just there, taking up space, one more tug whenever you’re looking for something else and there it is: history, image, memory, bonds of time and experience and emotion.

Or perhaps you have a difficult family history. You’re estranged from several living relatives, while deceased members left the scene with issues unresolved, and the family you have now aren’t blood relatives at all, but a family of choice you’ve managed in spite of things to assemble and cherish. Roommates, friends, mentors, colleagues, partners — people you’ve gathered and welcomed into your life at various points, who love and support you in turn.

With luck and grace and a strong constitution you may have one blood relative or spiritual ancestor you’ve started with. That person’s picture on an altar, or a wall, or stored on phone or laptop, serves as your launch point. Maybe not daily, or even weekly, but often enough, the images comes up and you have a moment to reflect on them, to remember.

Maybe you’ve signed up with one of the online genealogy sites, and your profile settings see to it you receive alerts whenever an ancestor date arrives. Your great-grandmother’s birthday, for example, or your great-great-grandfather’s wedding. The site obligingly emails you pictures of headstones, or some other electronic addition you might add to a memory altar, or discard or ignore.

All of these things may be enough. You’re busy, you don’t have time for “one more thing”, or that genealogically-obsessed relative more than makes up for whatever inattention you’ve been paying to the Right Noble Family Tree with their incessant gifs and jpegs and anecdotes, newspaper articles, questionnaires, memorabilia, and so forth.

Or you’re adopted, or orphaned, or otherwise almost entirely separated from your bloodline. Rather than an embarrassment of riches, you experience a dearth of ’em.

We all have arrived where we are today with the help of someone. That person is an ancestor, a fore-runner, a pathmaker, a hand to steady us on our way. And we have performed the same service for someone else, often enough without noticing.

Here are seven seeds for an ancestor practice I’ve explored over time.

1) “The Names of the Survivors”: We’re Here Now.

In my late teens I heard Rochester, NY poet Linda Allardt read her poem “The Names of the Survivors”, and the title as well as the closing lines have stayed with me. Survival makes do for grace, she closes, and at first that can sound grim or dark. But what is survival?

The best reason, if I need one, for an ancestor practice lies in one simple fact: I’m here today. If ever I’ve felt gratitude for simply being alive, there are roots of ancestor practice lying ready to hand. My existence today is tribute and vindication of their joys and struggles, in all their grotty and difficult human-ness. If you have a gratitude practice of any kind (or are looking at starting one), if you give thanks consciously at whatever frequency, it’s a sweet and simple thing to include those who have gone before and contributed to this moment.

2) Keeping up the Bone-House

Allied with my own being-here-now is a chance to do my best to honor and pass along that legacy. One of the Old English kennings or poetic expressions for the physical body is bánhús, bone-house. What I do with this bone-house life passes on my inheritance of it in the most concrete ways.

Every act matters, and an ancestor practice can paradoxically help me recall that. The deeds of now-nameless ancestors each helped bring me to here and now. It wasn’t the “big stuff” most days, though in hindsight each of these things is enormous: lighting a fire, cooking a meal, raising the children, tending the sick, burying the dead, butchering livestock, harvesting the crops, repairing the roof, honoring the lives they in turn received by living them fully. When I do the same, I celebrate and pass along the inheritance. Each life has a weight and presence of infinite value in the world.

When I smile at others and greet them, when I hold the door, pick up an empty soda can, drop off an abandoned wallet or phone to a lost-and-found, by performing such small gestures I lighten another’s life, no matter the degree. If one other person is glad I live today, I have helped branch the ancestral tree, and honored the gift I was given.

3) The Light-and-Shadow Tracery of Faces

You may or may not have (m)any photos of ancestors, depending on your family’s circumstances and the availability of cameras. Other objects may belong on your altar or other details can fill your remembrance.

Among my favorite family photos is this one of my uncle, aunt and mother, taken around 1921. (Yes, my mother was born in 1919 — she would have been 100 last year. She had me quite late — she was 40 when I was born, more unusual and risky then than now. An ancestor’s choice I’m obviously grateful for!)

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All three have passed over now, all three are people I knew in this life, and I celebrate their birthdays still. How much further you take such celebrations — preparing their favorite foods, inviting them to join you as you partake, including family and ritualising the event in other ways — depends on your own inclination and guidance. Such choices can bring ancestors into our present in potent ways.

Though we live in time, I’ve found we also travel along it in memory and imagination and vision, and we can consciously bless our past and future selves, as well as our ancestors, and descendants. The strength I’ve found to carry on through difficult times — to survive at all — pours forth from the pooling blessings of countless others, including my own. By such acts of compassion, the boundaries between self and other, self-ish and self-less, fall away.

For the good of the whole I offer this to the Sacred Pool …

4) Houses of My Blood and Spirit

The places where my ancestors lived may lie remote from my own, or I may live near or in the same house as one or more of them. When we enlarge such “houses” to include those who have taught and guided and encouraged us, whether living recently or long ago, here or on another spiral of the great journey, such dwellings grow large indeed. I count among my ancestors of spirit those whose words and wisdom inspire me, so that my altar of ancestors potentially extends far and wide. Whose birthdays will I acknowledge, or whose lives will I otherwise recognize and celebrate? It may be a talent I share with an ancestor, an historical interest, a quirk of person and character that allows me unique access to realms a particular ancestor also explored.

When we consider the spiraling DNA of these bodies of ours, all of us still live in very old ancestral houses, heirs to millennia.

Pondering, listening and revisiting these points slowly, over time, can help each person develop an engaging, varied and personal ancestral practice, along with a calendar of “Big Family” observances, of the Trees we each branch from.

And those other trees, which may be the same trees: What else can they teach us, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life?

5) The Telling

Recalling the quirks and twitches of our forebears, their idiosyncrasies along with their strengths, helps bring both into sharper focus, and diminishes our tendency to idealize them to the point where we can no longer aspire to be like them.

One of the purposes of ritual is the re-telling and re-enactment of stories. The central ritual feast of Communion or Eucharist in Christianity is anamnesis — “remembrance” in Greek. As often as you do this, says Jesus, do it in remembrance of me. For Christians, Jesus is the Great Ancestor of Spirit, and many traditions include remembrances of their own spiritual ancestors. When we re-member, we put the members back together, we reassemble a life and recount its impact.

Multiple stories mean multiple examples and models of choice and action. Each ancestor points to another possibility today.

6) Be(com)ing an Ancestor

Wants and desires define the ancestors, shape their legacy in us, as they define me and each of us and the legacies we leave. What I want is love and direction and purpose. What I desire may or may not bring me any closer to those things — may well change hour to hour, day to day, with an attractive face on the way to posting a letter, a split-second decision to take a different route through town, that impulse buy that leads to so many further consequences, the online comment that backfires or unfolds a friendship, the unplanned event that proves crucial to so much that follows.

Sorting these things out in worlds of time and space is what makes each of us an ancestor-in-training. What do I know, what do I need to review, what have I not yet discovered or explored?

More spirals await.

7) Regular Samhain

Samhain is the end of the Celtic year, and also — blessed paradox — the beginning of a new year. I witness the cycles of my life, its ends and beginnings, in spirals within spirals. Our normal short-term attention is between 3 and 10 seconds, and that window of awareness has a start and an end, a dimension and rhythm worth studying and exploring. So too does the cycle of waking, daytime experience and sleep.

Beyond that is the lunar cycle, so useful as a model for working with cycles on a scale most can manage, even in busy modern lives. The three days of dark in each monthly cycle encourage a practice of letting go and picking up again, can allow for a physical correlate to deep meditation, for other kinds of work with the pattern of Samhain of endings and beginnings, at different scales than just the calendar year.

Spirals within spirals form a spiritual reality and offer a model for a vital practice that proves flexible and adaptable to individual circumstances, shapes our lives however we live them, and links us to ancestral wisdom and presence in ways I’m still discovering, as are we all.

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Touching the Sacred, Part 4: Beltane as “Found Festival”   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Bluets (houstonia caerulea) in our back yard

 

Bluets carpet our backyard lawn, an easy seduction into putting off the mowing I’ll need to do in another week. The air itself is a welcome. I no longer brace myself to step outside. Instead, I peel off an unnecessary extra layer and stand still, feeling my body sun itself in the coaxing warmth. Bumblebees chirm around the first blooms, goldfinches dart across the front yard, and our flock of five bluejay fledgelings from last year wintered over without a single loss and now sound a raucous reveille every morning.

In this last of a four-part series on Beltane, I want to look at our “found festivals” — how we also touch the sacred in the daily-ness of our lives. We don’t always have to go looking for it, as if it’s a reluctant correspondent or a standoffish acquaintance. When I attend to the season and listen to the planet around me, I touch the sacred without effort. The sacred encounter, like a handshake, is a two-part affair. How often do I extend my hand?

Susanne writes in a Druid Facebook group we both follow that finally in her northern location “the last bit of snow on the north side of the house melted away on Beltane day.” Gift of Beltane. Something to dance for.

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Rudolf Steiner school celebration in Great Barrington, MA

 

The ritual calendar of much modern Paganism meshes with the often milder climate of Western Europe where it originated. It doesn’t always fit as well in the northern U.S. or Canada, or other places that have adopted it. (So we tweak calendars and rituals and observances. Like all sensible recipes say, “Season to taste.”)

It’s a cycle that the medieval British poet Geoffrey Chaucer celebrates in the Canterbury Tales by singing (I’m paraphrasing lightly):

the showers of April have pierced the droughts of March to the root … the West Wind has breathed into the new growth in every thicket and field … the small birds make their melodies and sleep all night with open eyes …

A Vermonter like me looks at Beltane looming on May 1 and reads those lines of Chaucer’s and thinks, “About a month too early, Geoffrey.” Spring, not summer, begins at Beltane, though to feel the recent temperatures on your face you might well think Beltane is the start of summer indeed. Game of Thrones fans, never fear: Winter will come (again). But now … ah, now … Spring!

Susanne continues:

and even though they are a symbol of Imbolc, the snowdrops are blooming merrily followed closely by the daffodils. The peepers are peeping, the owls are hooting, the woodcocks are rasping ‘peent’ on the ground and twittering in flight.

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salamander crossing signs in our nearest town

 

Late April and early May here in southern VT, and in your home area, too, means an annual migration of some sort. Here it’s spotted salamanders. After dark, volunteers with flashlights man the gullies and wet spots to escort the salamanders safely across roads, and slow the chance passing car to the pace of life.

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Beltane finds Susanne with her hands in the earth, responding to the call of Spring:

The weekend was spent with Spring clean up, turning the soil and sowing the greens and peas in the garden. I was a bit disappointed in myself that I haven’t held a Beltane ritual but then I realized that this was the ritual…working with the soil, plants and spirits of the land, listening to my favorite songs …

May you all touch the sacred where you are.

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Images: bluets/houstonia caerulea — ADW; Great Barrington MA school celebration; salamander sign — ADW; yellow spotted salamander.

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